First posed in 1998, the question is just as provocative 16 years later. "Can Asians Think?" was written by the prolific and brilliant thinker Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
The book is a combative rebuttal of the idea that the tradition of Western thought is universal, arguing that the rest of the world has a lot to teach the West.
Rereading it after more than 16 years, the questions raised by Mahbubani are as relevant as ever. Personally, I still find the title rather condescending – of course Asians can think! The real issue is whether Asians can think strategically in their own interest, or whether they think that the dominant Western values are so comfortable and relevant that they simply accept that West is best.
The intellectual tide is going full circle. Since 1998 we have experienced two full-scale crises – the Asian financial meltdown of 1998-1999, which saw Western polemicists gloat at Asian hubris, and the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when even Western intellectuals questioned whether unfettered capitalism was a dead end.
As one Asian leader put it, when our teacher stumbles, what does the student do? This strategic question has not been completely answered, or at least the answers are different in different Asian countries.
Now that the West has begun to recover, we are going through a reversal of fortunes. Emerging economies are going to bear the brunt of global adjustment. At least three Asian economies are counted amongst the Fragile Five (India, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil and South Africa), and there is considerable concern that China may be experiencing a “hard landing”.
President Obama’s trip to Asia was a belated personal confirmation of his “Pivot to East Asia” policy, first articulated in 2012 by then-secretary of state and now presidential wannabe Hillary Clinton. As the US began to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and its discovery of shale oil made it less dependent on the Middle East, the pivot strategy involved strengthening bilateral ties with allies in East Asia, and working relationships with emerging powers such as China.
The immediate unintended consequence of the pivot policy was the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, whereby Russia took advantage of European weakness and the diversion of US attention to annex Crimea.
All of a sudden, the Cold War, defined as the struggle between Big Powers, re-entered the global risk equation.
The US pivot harks back to the paper “The Geographical Pivot of History”, delivered exactly 110 years ago by Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), director of the London School of Economics and considered the father of geopolitical theory. Mackinder encapsulated his theory of geopolitics in a dictum: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
The heartland referred to is of course Central Asia, previously part of the Soviet Union, and the World-Island is the largest landmass, Eurasia – stretching from Atlantic Europe to the East Asian Pacific coast and commanding 50 per cent of the world’s resources.
Many of today’s areas of geopolitical contention are at the frontiers of the Heartland – Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and the South China Sea.
Mackinder’s innovation was to examine national strategy on a global scale, recognising that the British Empire must use geography and strategic policy to its advantage against competing great powers.
Former British colonies understood very well the British strategy of “divide and rule” – playing off one faction against the other so that Britain could rule a subcontinent like India without expending too many resources. But Britain did not hesitate to use gunboats or cannons to maintain the strategic balance. Similarly, Britain played off one European power against another until it was weakened by two world wars, and her former colony the United States emerged as the global superpower.
Seen through the long lens of history, we are in the age of the second Anglo-Saxon empire, with America being the new Rome. Just as the Roman Empire shifted its capital from Rome to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 4th century, in the 20th century power shifted westward from London to Washington DC.
In the 20th century, two island economies, Britain and Japan, played leading roles on the continents of Europe and Asia by exercising maritime power, but by the 21st century, air and technological power through size and scale changed the game in favour of the US. The US is a continental economy defended by two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, without a military rival within the Americas.
In contrast, Asia has been historically riven by war and territorial disputes.
In his new book “The Revenge of Geography”, geostrategist Robert Kaplan argues that politics and warfare have been determined throughout history largely by geography. Even though the arrival of air travel and the Internet suggest that the world may become borderless, the reality is that the world is becoming more and more crowded.
When World War I broke out in 1914, the global population was only 1.7 billion, with a death count of 16 million. In World War II, the death count reached as high as 85 million at a time when the global population was only 2.3 billion.
The next world war will be fought over water and energy resources, because there are limits to natural resources even as the global population exceeds 7 billion, set to reach 9 billion by 2030.
Avoiding global conflict will require great skills and mutual understanding, because the geopolitical risks of political miscalculations and accidents are extremely high in an age of rising tensions due to inequality, nationalism and religious and ethnic polarisation. As an old African saying goes, when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. The next big fight will be between nuclear powers, which means there will be no winners.
Now that is something that not just Asians must seriously think about.
Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow of the Fung Global Institute.